Devil’s Rejects

(May you be in heaven a full half hour before the devil knows you ignored the Spoiler’s Creed.)

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

devil-dead.jpgSidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead starts with a sex scene that’s important for being so out-of-place. In movie shorthand, it suggests a prostitute and a john: The man is paunchy, she is lithe, and he’s taking her from behind. Surely, one of them will awaken in the morning and find the other dead. Isn’t that nearly always the aftermath?

It turns out they’re married, and on vacation. They’re briefly happy, and they’re as surprised by that as the audience should be that they both survive the sexual encounter. Alas, their conjugal bliss droops like a spent erection (sorry), and we’re shifted to a different place, where a title card sets the time in relation to a robbery.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Andy, the husband, and Marisa Tomei is the wife. He’s been embezzling money from the company for which he works, and he sucks his ne’er-do-well brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) into a robbery scheme. Their target speaks to their lack of imagination, as does an expected take measured in the tens of thousands of dollars.

So there are two elements at work here: family drama and crime, and I emphasize this because screenwriter Kelly Masterson has constructed something that balances the story’s thriller conventions with ostensible human elements. The lack of twists and turns (and, really, plot suspense) makes the movie feel like a long haul, with little visceral satisfaction.

But Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead doesn’t work well as a drama, either. Fundamentally, the two primary characters are the same at the end of the movie as they were at the beginning, although one is a little less alive. They were selfish assholes at the outset — one more than the other — and they’re selfish, scared assholes at the close, and while I suppose one might empathize with men who dig deep holes for themselves, I was never involved on an emotional level.

If there’s character development, it comes from a grieving husband/angry father played by Albert Finney, but his arc is nearly pre-destined: He settles on vengeance, it seems, because it gives him something to do with his abundant free time.

There’s also this odd, insistent anti-cop vibe that almost plays like a joke. It might just be a conceit to keep the plot relatively simple, but the police in Before the Devil ... apparently have no interest in thoroughly investigating the murder of an old lady in a suburban strip mall, despite the ineptitude of the criminals involved. (One imagines that solving this crime — beyond assuming that the dead guy was working alone — might take as much as an hour.) There’s a subplot in which Finney’s character can’t even talk to a cop investigating his wife’s shooting, and after he rams his car into a police cruiser — at the police station — he is neither caught nor punished. Masterson might be a little cynical about law enforcement.

Still, the first half of the movie is involving, skilled, and playful, as Lumet and Masterson clear away some of the intentional disorientation of the opening scenes and establish relationships. They provide enough information to suggest some horrific lapse in judgment, but most viewers will question themselves. He couldn’t be that stupid, could he? Yes, he is. And she is. And they are. Yes, she’s fucking her husband’s brother. Yes, they’re planning to rob their parents’ jewelry store. And what could possibly go wrong?

There’s also pleasure in the performances. Hoffman seems incapable of doing dumb, and Andy isn’t stupid exactly, but one can almost see his mind racing in circles; he’s probably a master at checkers, and thinks himself good at chess. Hoffman and Masterson also provide him a hint of complexity, a suggestion that the unintentional damage he’s caused gives him a small measure of satisfaction, payback for his childhood.

Meanwhile, Hawke appears to be parodying Tom Cruise with a turn full of desperate cheeriness. Finney dodders and mumbles pathetically yet remains an intimidating figure. And say this for Tomei: Her breasts give age-defying performances, assuming that they’ve been around for all of her four-plus decades.

But while I admire elements of Masterson’s script — compact (if too tidy), elegant with its exposition, and clever with its minor reveals — my favorite bits in the movie are throwaways, such as an early exchange in which Hank accepts his brother’s clearly unmeant offer.

It’s a crisply drawn interaction, one of the few times the movie feels alive and authentic, and I wish Before the Devil ... leaned more heavily toward this type of human observation. Instead, Masterson’s plot requires characters to behave in certain ways to reach a certain outcome, down to Andy and the jewelry-store robber making an ironically identical mistake of distraction.

Meanwhile, Lumet and his editor, Tom Swartwout, employ an aggressive, jarring scene-transition style that belongs to a far lighter movie. It, the nonlinear structure, and Tomei’s nudity in (I think) her first three scenes feel like crass calculations, designed to stimulate the audience and convince folks that they’re seeing something exciting.

I looked at this movie as one of those “sins of the father” kind of movies that is very difficult to connect with. Every character seems to have little regard for each other except for the mother. Take her out of the equation and what little family unity existed falls apart. PS Hoffman’s character seems to be the worst head case until you meet Albert Finney’s than everything starts to make sense in a dysfunctional family kind of way. It’s a tough sell, a small-time crime drama that leaves the viewer cold. It’s a movie that starts with a bang :) and ends with a whimper and I think someday I’ll have to give it another look and probably have a different opinion.

Well, I surprised myself. I saw the movie on Swedish tele from start to finish. Guess I enjoyed it as I am not a massocist, as far as I know. Of course, it�s the sort of film that begs critisism- drawn out scenes devoid of substance: brothers lame reaction to the other nobbling his misses, indeed the idea of such a totty as Marise Tomei giving either one a second glance defies belief- a crass case of miscasting if ever there was one, and there was........

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